Note #16. Transparency Attack: Launch of the Mekong Infrastructure Tracker

  • Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.
  • Asia-Pacific, Commercial, Security, Strategy
  • No Comments

The Mekong Infrastructure Tracker launched today, providing a public platform that creates transparency on nearly 4000 ongoing or planned infrastructure projects in this strategic region.

The Greater Mekong River subregion includes Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and southwest China. Official China is the main threat to transparency, manipulating water levels for its own use and causing catastrophic damage downstream. This Note briefly describes the features of this online tool.

The Mekong Infrastructure Tracker was developed by the Southeast Asia Program of the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. The platform is a system of web applications that allows anyone to monitor energy, transportation, and water infrastructure and associated social, economic, and ecological impact. The Tracker is supported by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and led by The Asia Foundation. Committed to promoting environmental, social and government standards, the work is the result of 18 months of collaboration among 20-odd focus groups.

The Tracker has two tools: the Mekong Infrastructure Tracker Dashboard; and the Mekong Project Impact Screener. More will be added. All products are exportable and downloadable.

The Tracker Dashboard

Figure 1

The Mekong Infrastructure Tracker Dashboard can filter the following information individually or simultaneously:

  • Name of project
  • Type of infrastructure (biomass, coal, gas, geothermal, hydro, mixed fossil fuel, nuclear, oil, solar, waste, wind)
  • Year of Completion
  • Project Size
  • Construction Status (operational, planned, under construction, unknown)
  • Lender/Financier (organization, country)
  • Construction/EPC Country
  • Projects by Country
  • Watershed
Figure 2

A Charts panel (above) also functions as an interactive filter and shows:

  • Number of projects and status
  • Capacity (megawatts) by lender country/financier and energy type
  • Capacity by location and energy type
  • Capacity by construction EPC country and energy type
  • Capacity by sponsor develop country and energy type
  • Number of projects by status and energy type; total capacity by energy type
  • Number of projects by year of completion and energy type
Figure 3

A Map Layers filter (above) displays power generation projects and several types of pertinent information:

  • Energy type
  • Threatened species
  • Earthquakes from 2000-2020
  • Historical armed conflicts
  • Ethnicity
  • Watersheds
  • Tributaries

There are 24 choices of map images fit for various info-graphics: satellite imagery; imagery hybrid; streets; topographic; streets at night; terrain with labels; canvas (light and dark); oceans; National Geographic style; open street; charted territory; community; navigation; newspaper; human geography; modern antique; mid-century; nova; colored pencil; firefly hybrid; and USA topographical.

Upon selecting any filter combination, the details of projects also can be explored in a panel to the right (see Figure 1).

The Impact Screener

Figure 4

The Mekong Infrastructure Impact Screener allows us to assess the impact of two types of projects:

  • Energy—hydro, solar, coal, waste, gas, biomass, wind, oil, geothermal, nuclear, mixed fossil fuel
  • Linear—canal, national road, railway, national road upgrade, railway upgrade, urban rail, high speed rail

Controlling, retrieving and exporting information is done by selecting any of the following layers (on the right side of the screen):

  • Energy infrastructure
  • Linear infrastructure
  • Mekong WDPA (World-wide Database on Protected Areas) polygons
  • IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species
  • Mekong Key Biodiversity Areas
  • Armed Conflict
  • Ethnic Groups
  • Major Earthquakes (2000-2020)
  • Population Density
  • Crop Dominance
  • Forest Loss
  • Tree Cover
  • Sea Level Rise
Figure 5

Map Controls on the left side (above) can navigate the terrain, filter sub-types, and select areas of interest. The selected area above generated projects marked by the large red-and-white location icons.

While the Dashboard can select projects for a better understanding of their environmental-social context, the Screener can gather data in a specific location and filter that information. We can examine the values of any data point as well. For instance, the operational impact of environmental trends such as rising sea levels’ influence on coastal mining and roadway operations. And the reverse—the environmental impact of infrastructure-building such as dams’ and canals’ influence on crops. Resilient infrastructure includes both aspects.

The Tracker offers options for planners, developers, engineers, policy makers, entrepreneurs, investors, researchers and the media. Country standards for infrastructure development can be benchmarked and compared to international best practices for improvement. On the other hand, irresponsible loans and expedient practices for short-term gains can be spotted for further scrutiny and implementation of safeguards.

For instance, the USAID Mekong Safeguards activity (implemented by the Asia Foundation) helps countries apply environmental, social and governance standards. Identifying policy and legal standards such as permit and licensing requirements, and familiarizing stakeholders with those via workshops, can assist project developers and decision makers. Examples of increased awareness include: discerning least-cost with environmental and social considerations; forecasting demand for manufacturers; and eliciting stock exchange disclosures for investors.

The need for such data transparency among development partners is critical to specifying costs and benefits of projects that otherwise remain hidden. Who is funding a project? What is its scope and scale? How much have investors committed, and for how long? What is the impact on people and the environment? Sustainable development requires reliable data with which to characterize the complexity of the information environment, anticipate opportunities, and develop courses of action to deal with dynamic threats.

Transparency Attack

The need for transparency is urgent, as investment shortfalls in the Mekong region are twice that which the Asia Development Bank can commit. The ADB‘s Strategy 2030 (7-8) identifies a requirement of $1.7 trillion in infrastructure per year, 50% of which is desired from the private sector. Moreover, the economic impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has slowed the pace of investment and infrastructure programs.

The current COVID-19 pandemic also provides opportunities for official China to increase investment when programs resume. Doing this darkly would be consistent with Beijing’s deceptive narrative that China is a blameless and benign model of global cooperation (ICSL Paper #23).

As investors re-evaluate the Mekong region, data transparency is crucial to planning and implementing infrastructure projects that benefit communities. Important questions include, how do railway plans overlay on existing settlements, farming, biodiversity, and cultures? What is the demand forecast for products and services in affected areas? How can citizens of all Mekong states be engaged to prepare for the opportunities offered by transcontinental supply chains? The Mekong Infrastructure Tracker can help answer such questions.

The Mekong Infrastructure Tracker is a transparency attack against dis-, mis- and mal-information. Used in combination with The Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Hamilton 2.0 Tracker, the platform can be used to expose and reduce authoritarianism, corruption, environmental damage, and social coercion.

Author: Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.

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